[6 August 2008]
When producer and Tijuana Brass-man Herb Alpert introduced the world to Sergio Mendes in 1966, there was every reason to believe that the Brazilian pianist and arranger was a novelty act. “Bossa Nova”, after all, was a jazzed-up samba craze in the U.S. that seemed unlikely to stick around. How many times did you really want to hear “The Girl from Ipanema”?
But when Mendes and his group Brasil ‘66 played Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” on the 1968 Oscar broadcast and it shot up the charts, Mendes’s schtick was proven more sturdy. Quickly enough, Mendes had a hit formula—giving great pop songs like the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” a samba groove and letting terrific singers put them across. Mendes used great musicians, and he had a knack for boiling good material down to its essence.
Time passed. Brasil ‘66 became Brasil ‘77. The hit records came less frequently, but Mendes was still around. So, when 2006 found Mendes collaborating with a new generation of pop stars on Timeless, the album title didn’t seem that much of a stretch. Mendes was inspired to record again by will.i.am, who invited Mendes to guest on a Black-Eyed Peas record, and then went on to produce the 2006 disc. Now, Mendes is back with will.i.am for another go-‘round, this time featuring fewer American pop stars and a healthy dose of classic bossa-nova material.
Encanto (meaning “Enchanted”) begins with a fresh take on “The Look of Love”, with Will.I.Am getting his bandmate Fergie into the lead vocal spot. In some ways, it’s just like 1968—with Mendes’s Rhodes electric piano out front, and the same bassline setting it all up. But soon enough a new groove is in place, part hip-hop and part Brazilian, and a slick rap works as intro and verse. The chorus is still Bacharach’s irresistible melody, seductively sung—making the whole package a truly ingenious blend of old and new.
To connect to his deepest roots, Mendes includes four tunes here by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the gold standard of bossa-nova composing. The two familiar ones are “The Waters of March” and “Agua de Beber”. “March” is the rare misfire here, with the punchy rhythm arrangement pushing guest vocalist Ledisi into an uncharacteristically stiff and leaden performance. You wish Mendes had given this tune the more-traditional arrangement he gives to Jobim’s “Somewhere in the Hills”, sung by Natalie Cole. “Hills” is percussion-driven and colored by outstanding flugelhorn work by Till Bronner. It’s not a question of the modern touches failing, however, as will.i.am’s take on “Agua De Beber” is a delight—the rap weaving around the classic melody and snugging into the samba groove like caramel. Jobim’s “Dreamer” is keen because it features a vocal by Lani Hall, Brasil ‘66’s original lead singer—not to mention tasteful trumpet obligato by Alpert (who happens to be Hall’s husband).
Not that nostalgia is Encanto‘s primary note. Without bending his conception too much, Mendes collaborates with the Colombian superstar Juanes on “Y Vamos Ya” and with Italian singer Jovanotti on “Lugar Comum”. “Acode” is a feature for the contemporary Brazilian Vanessa da Mata, and “Odo-Ya” hands the lead vocal to her country-mate Carlinhos Brown. The American Siedah Garrett floats over “Funky Bahia”. In every case, the flavor of the singer mixes in with Mendes’s basic Brazilian soup, but whole meal still coheres. Because the Sergio Mendes “brand” has never been about the signature of a single vocalist, this approach feels natural—and not one of the singers is less than sharp.
Still, some listeners will note that Sergio Mendes was a bit of a middle-of-the-road hack in 1966, so is he anything more than faux-lounge hip in the 21st Century? In the world of Brazilian music, Mendes is neither a master nor a hometown star. He is a populizer here in the US, where he has lived continually since 1964. His work shouldn’t be judged by purist standards, but rather by pure pop standards: Do these songs lodge in your head? Do they make you want to roll down the window of your car or kick off your shoes? Yes, yes, and yes.
The success on these fronts has little to do with the charisma or talent of the guests, however. Though Mendes himself sings only a little and is far from a virtuoso featured instrumentalist, it is his basic formula that makes Encanto so winning. On nearly every tune, you will find crisp and hooky keyboard licks, typically punched out by Mendes on his Rhodes, which ride above rhythm arrangements that are uniformly effective and interesting. Kudos to bassist Alfonso Johnson, guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., and drummer Mike Shapiro, who anchor the material without seeming over-slick. Mendes’s arranging style features his group of harmony singers on most occasions, and they polish each tune with pop shininess. When he turns to his wife, Gracinha Leparsace, for a lead vocal, there is no drop-off in quality. Any singer would be lucky to work in these settings, each compelling and propulsive.
Listeners looking for unadulterated Brazilian music or for straight pop are out of luck, but Encanto remains a near-perfect expression of Sergio Mendes’s raison d’etre. Mendes was put here to give Americans a samba-rific breeze on a hot summer day. Might as well let it blow through your hair. Roll down the window and enjoy.